For a long time now, I've wanted to write a blog post or feature dedicated to one of my favorite video games of all time, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. While I've written about the game and its sequels frequently across various articles I've written over the last five years, I've never written an entire post fully focused on just how much I love it and why it is so special. On two separate occasions, I've written rough drafts that ultimately went unfinished. This time however, I'm armed with far more experience with not only the original game, but the franchise as a whole. Since my last attempt a year ago, I've fully replayed Trails in the Sky, have finished two of its sequels, and I'm well on my way through the latest game in the franchise. With all of this extensive experience under my belt, I'd like to share not just why I love Trails in the Sky, but Falcom's Trails series as a whole.

Before I start delving deeper, I'd like to give a brief overview of just what the Trails series is and a little bit of my history with it. Falcom's Trails series is an ongoing RPG series consisting of seven games, with an eighth on the way, that are amazingly all directly and deeply connected to each other. More than any other RPG series today, the Trails series carries on the spirit of the RPG classics I loved growing up like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger while also feeling well up to modern standards even from its very first entry that released in Japan in 2004. As you might imagine from the impressive number of games all connected to each other, the Trails series is always playing the long game when it comes to storytelling even as it also revels in mundane quests and experiences. The series intensely works from the very beginning to build its world as you travel town by town and learn everything about the people that live there including their culture and politics and how it all interconnects with the world at large. When events happen that threaten countries, you'll know how it affects the people you've grown to care about which is why they will matter. Of course, in addition to the series grand narrative ambitions, each arc of the story also focuses on specific casts of characters and their stories are just as fascinating and fun to discover and experience.

As you might have noticed, I've largely glossed over that the Trails series is part of Falcom's greater Legend of Heroes series, which is also a subset of their Dragon Slayer series, but that's because it doesn't really matter. The Trails game are divorced from the greater series as the world that Falcom started building with Trails in the Sky has nothing to do with any previous Legend of Heroes or Dragon Slayer games.

The eight Trails games cover three separate arcs of the greater Trails story including the Liberl Arc, the Crossbell Arc, and the Erebonia Arc, and there is definitely potential for the story to keep growing beyond that as it covers more countries and characters across the continent. To date, four games in the series have been released in English and one more is on the way. That leaves two games unlocalized while another is still in development. Since it is kind of confusing to discuss otherwise, I've broken down the status of each game in the series in regards to their English releases:

The Liberl Arc

Trails in the Sky (PSP/Vita, PC, 2011)
Trails in the Sky SC (PSP/Vita, PC, 2015)
Trails in the Sky The Third (PC, Coming In 2017)

The Crossbell Arc (Unreleased)

Trails to Zero
Trail to Azure

The Erebonia Arc

Trails of Cold Steel (Vita, PS3, 2015)
Trails of Cold Steel II (Vita, PS3, 2016)
Trails of Cold Steel III (Still In Development)

If you haven't started playing the series I'd encourage you to start with Trails in the Sky and Trails in the Sky SC. These two games follow Estelle Bright as she journeys across her country of Liberl to become a full member of the Bracer Guild which assists civilians in need. Liberl is a small, independent country situated between two larger countries, the Erebonian Empire and the Calvard Republic, but interestingly it holds a technological advantage. While Estelle's journey becomes increasingly grand in scope during her travels, it is grounded by having the focus be on her relationship with her brother Joshua. Of the Trails games I've played so far, both Trails in the Sky and SC (SC stands for Second Chapter) are my absolute favorites. The two games were my 2011 and 2015 games of the year respectively and are of course some of my favorite games of all time. They offer the perfect mix of story and gameplay and I'd especially recommend them to fans of the SNES and PS1 RPGs of old.

Trails in the Sky The Third is coming in early 2017, but don't let that stop you from jumping into either the first two Sky games or the alternate entry point for the series, Trails of Cold Steel. Trails in the Sky and SC are lengthy adventures that tell Estelle's complete story, while The Third focuses on another character introduced in SC, Kevin Graham, and helps further set up both the Crossbell and Erebonia arcs.

Speaking of the Crossbell arc, as you've read above it is the only arc not translated in English. By the time we received the PSP ports of both Trails in the Sky and SC the PSP was long dead in the West which nixed the chances of us getting the original versions of Trails to Zero and Trails to Azure. The Crossbell arc focuses on members of a police force in the state of Crossbell which wants to claim its independence from both the Empire and the Republic. While XSeed, the publisher of the Trails series in the West, has expressed interest in localizing both games there are various hurdles to be cleared and currently they are still busy with localizing Trails in the Sky The Third. Thankfully, the story of the Crossbell Arc is actually concurrent with the story of the Erebonia Arc which means either arc is good to jump into next from The Trails in the Sky series. 

The Erebonia Arc, with the Trails of Cold Steel games, is actually another good place for newcomers to jump into the series in general. While fans of prior Trails games will enjoy encountering or hearing about familiar faces and factions, the story focuses on a new cast of characters that are students at a military academy in the Erebonian Empire. Over the course of the story they travel and learn about their country and the world at large so you don't need any prior knowledge in order to understand the story. The Cold Steel games feature an even more refined version of the already excellent turn-based combat system featured in the Sky games and introduce social mechanics that Persona fans especially will enjoy. The presentation also is a huge bump over the Sky games as it is fully in 3D and features excellent English voice acting. I really enjoyed Trails of Cold Steel and I highly recommend checking it out. Also, as for Trails of Cold Steel II, I'm currently well into the adventure and it definitely has a strong chance at being my game of the year when all is said and done.

Now that I've properly introduced the series, I'd like to focus the rest of this blog on three main pillars of the franchise: combat, characters, and the world.

While the story is the most remarkable part of the Trails series, the combat is equally entertaining and important as it helps make the games feel all the more substantial. The Trails games all feature turn-based combat that is basically a cross between Final Fantasy X and Chrono Trigger. As in Final Fantasy X you can see the order of battle for both your party members and enemies and similar to Chrono Trigger a lot of your special attacks are affected by your shifting position on the battlefield.

Yet there are two clutch additions to Trails' combat that gives the combat its own unique flavor. First are the bonuses and penalties that are handed out on specific turns such as 10% Strength Up, Critical Hit, and Deathblow. By delaying and interrupting the turn order in battle through your abilities, buffs, and debuffs you can ensure your team gets all of the bonuses and even shift the penalties onto your enemies. The other major feature of the battle system is the CP gauge. Unlike EP which governs Arts (Magic) and is a limited resource, CP gradually increases as you deal and take damage. CP allows you to use powerful character specific abilities and the Limit Break-like S-Crafts that can completely interrupt turn order when you trigger them during an opponent's turn. CP is thus a very flexible resource which allows you to shift the battle in many different ways and helps combat always feel engaging.

Each game in the series introduces new ideas to combat that complement the rock solid foundation established in the first game. Trails in the Sky SC for example introduces the ability for you to initiate a combo attack with one of your party members. Cold Steel takes this a step further by introducing Combat Links that let you pair up characters to deal follow up attacks and cover for each other. Combat Links even tie into the social mechanics where the power of your Combat Links is strengthened by the bonds you develop with your party members during Bonding Events. 

Of course the best RPGs offer meaningful choices both on and off the battlefield and Trails is no different. Through a combination of equipping the right quartz and accessories you can develop your party members in very interesting ways. Unlike many RPGs I play where I strive for very balanced party members, the interesting perks of Trails' equipment often encourages me to make my strengths even stronger no matter the cost. In Trails in the Sky for example, I strove to make Tita a glass cannon by throwing everything I could into her attack power and upping her CP generation as much as possible. Even though it cost her both defense and Art strength, I felt Tita was a good choice for this because her default grenade launcher could hit multiple enemies at once which already generated a significant amount of CP to begin with. Ultimately my build  allowed Tita to fire off her S-Craft practically every other turn which would annihilate trash mobs and help me disable bosses that much quicker. I appreciate that since you can freely shift your quartz and accessories around between battles you are always able to rebuild and thus can fully explore the potential of the system.

Characters are another central pillar of the Trails series as each game takes great care in developing its central cast and the extensive amount of NPCs that populate the world. While I generally don't like attaching the generic sounding Legend of Heroes name when talking about each Trails game, I think the name actually does fit pretty well in regards to its characters. Practically every central character you meet, both friend and foe, is larger than life in some way whether they have an animated personality, a position of rank, or an epic title like The Divine Blade or The Severing Chains (or maybe all three!) which makes you want to get to know them as fast as possible. Amazingly, each character you meet is often grounded and given proper development that humanizes them which makes learning about and interacting with them all the more fulfilling. I love that the series frequently has special events and quests that see many of your extended allies join forces with the core cast and temporarily become playable because it makes your relationship with them feel more tangible.

In both Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel, I appreciate how each cast develops from allies, to friends, to family. Cold Steel does this especially well as your party at Thors Military Academy, Class VII, is formed from people from all walks of life; commoners, nobles, and even outsiders. Your party members' different upbringings frequently cause clashes, but they also offer unique insights into events and cultures that helps push the party as a whole forward. While both Sky and Cold Steel do a great job at using each party member's background to fuel the drama, I appreciate how Cold Steel goes a step further by offering Bonding Events that gives you one on one time with each character. Like Persona's Social Links, the Bonding Events help personalize your story as there isn't enough time in each day to hang out with everyone. By developing your relationships, you can trigger special event scenes and even slightly alter the ending.

While there are plenty of standout party members, the protagonists of Sky and Cold Steel are especially noteworthy. Estelle Bright is an amazing female protagonist in both Trails in the Sky games and probably my favorite in a video game. She has a ton of personality no matter the situation which always makes her a joy to follow and watching her develop into a leader that inspires others over the course of 120 hours is awesome. Rean Schwarzer from Cold Steel is likewise one of my favorite male RPG protagonists. I love both his normal down to earth personality and the deep passion he displays when he has to fight for something important. I also love how Rean hides secrets from both his friends and the player as it's interesting to control a character you don't always fully understand.

The third and final major pillar of the Trails games I want to discuss is their impressive world that has been developed over the course of seven games. There is an impressive amount of NPCs to interact with that are all named and have their own quirks and stories to tell as well as a ton of history and lore to discover during your adventures. Each Trails game has you visiting towns, filled with their own histories, cultures, and people and it is always a joy to explore them as thoroughly as possible. While talking to NPCs to gather information is important, especially as a lot of the quests in the Trails games rely on your knowledge of the areas you are exploring to complete them, I mainly enjoy checking in on them regularly since they always react to the latest events and offer new insights. I love that the dialogue in conversations adapts if you have gained information ahead of time as it makes your actions more personal. What is most fascinating though is that in both Sky and Cold Steel the relationships you forge in their first entries can be transferred over into their sequels which grant various rewards and even additional quests that further expand your relationships.

While all of the Trails games feature stories that become increasingly epic as they progress, I really appreciate that Falcom gives equal attention to the more mundane parts of their adventures as well. While a lot of this is found in the contents of quests, such as every game featuring a quest about changing a light bulb, there are also plenty of fun activities that reinforce this as well. All of the Trails games feature fishing minigames for example and most task you with filling out a fishing journal by catching every type of fish in the land. Subsequent games each introduce new activities such as Cold Steel's card game, BLADE, that has since appeared in other Falcom games, and Cold Steel II's snowboarding. Perhaps my favorite feature of the Trails games that focus on fleshing out the world though are the various in-game books and newspapers you can read. While some books are unfortunately obtuse to collect, the often lengthy stories span a wide range of genres and amusingly are frequently referenced by characters in the world. My favorite book in the series thus far, Red Moon Rose, is a 300+ page adventure about hunting vampires and was entertaining enough that I made sure to go out of my to collect and read every chapter. 

That more or less wraps up my thoughts on why I love Falcom's Trails series. They are deeply personal adventures, with amazing characters, excellent battle systems, and a world that is one of the most developed in video games. If you love RPGs, especially from the SNES and PS1 era, I cannot recommend the Trails games enough. They are easily some of my favorite games of all time.

I hope you enjoyed reading my latest blog! If you've played any of the Trails games or have any questions about them, be sure to share in the comments below. I always enjoy reading and responding to your comments.